Until recently, Pennsylvania-style rye had all but disappeared. Distilleries in the area dwindled from 5,000 in the 1700s to …. zero.
But assertive and spicy Pennsylvania-style rye may be poised for a renaissance. Craft distiller Mountain Laurel Spirits, located in Bristol, PA, first resuscitated the spirit with its Dad’s Hat label in 2012. More recently, a handful of other craft distillers have joined the Pennsylvania-style rye party, such as Pittsburgh’s Wigle Whiskey and Hewn Spirits in Pipersville.
This distinctly regional style of whiskey dates back to colonial days when it was made with Monongahela rye, which grew in abundance along Pennsylvania’s Monongahela river—also the site of the 1794 Whiskey Rebellion. In the 1700s and 1800s, farmers distilled the surplus of rye grain into hooch. Compared to most modern ryes, made with corn as well as the required 51 percent or higher rye grain, PA-style whiskey was made with rye and barley, providing a robust, slightly sweet flavor, often with a subtle floral note.
After Prohibition, production died off, one distiller at a time. The last ones closed their doors in the 1980s thanks to changing tastes. Rye was considered an old man’s drink—at least until the burgeoning speakeasy nostalgia of the 2000s which helped resurrect enthusiasm for swigging Sazeracs and other rye-based cocktails.
Why bother to resurrect PA’s heritage rye now? "A lot of people have lost sight of history," explains John Cooper, co-founder of Mountain Laurel Spirit. Although HBO’s Boardwalk Empire may have helped nudge awareness with occasional references to Pennsylvania rye, few modern-day tipplers understand the role Pennsylvania once played as a whiskey-making state.
"The great story of whiskey is the variety," Cooper insists, pointing to the regional differences of Scotch whiskey and broad variations among bourbons derived from various mash bills, aging and distillation processes. "It should be the same with rye. You want to have different rye profiles, flavors and nuances." For example, he contrasts robust Pennsylvania-style whiskey with drier Maryland-style, as well as ryes made in Canada versus the U.S.
The eponymous dad (and his Stetson fedora) refers to the father of Mountain Laurel Spirits distiller Herman Mihalich, who co-founded the brand with college buddy Cooper (of course both attended Penn).
The basic Dad’s Hat ryes—a grassy white whiskey ($32) and the flagship rye ($33), aged about eight months in relatively small barrels—are worth seeking out. But it’s their limited-edition "double-finished" ryes that are truly impressive. First out of the gate was a vermouth-finished rye ($45), which spent extra time in former Vya vermouth barrels furnished by California’s Quady Winery. The raisins-and-spice profile seems like a running head start on a Manhattan. Following shortly after: a chocolaty port-finished rye ($43), given a turn in Quady’s former Starboard barrels (a fortified wine that’s not technically port).
It’s not a classic Pennsylvania-style rye, but who cares? Both limited editions are freakishly tasty. And like most once-stale spirits with notable history (hello, gin), maybe a hefty dose of experimentation is what it will take for PA-style rye to thrive.
Although Cooper and Mihalich can’t say for sure what’s coming next for Dad’s Hat, they state with certainty what’s not coming next: "No, we won’t make bourbon," Cooper insists. "We’ll never make a vodka or a gin. We’ll stick with rye."